Sunday, February 19, 2012

Nagaland's Headhunters Caught

Excerpt from The Deccan Herald

Vikeyeno Zao of the Angami tribe made a 15-minute short film 'Last of the Tattooed Head Hunters’ which was showcased in the short film section at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival in France. It was also the first time that a short film from India’s Northeast had made it to Cannes.

It took her 7 years to research the headhunting practices of her ancestors. The film tries to re-enact the ritualistic details of headhunting, a practice that continued till the mid-20th century. It shows how soothsayers could predict in which direction the enemy was lying and the time and direction in which the warrior should move. When the warriors brought their prized trophy home, they would place it on a platform made of a banana trunk for three to four months until the head began to rot. Then a ritual was performed and the skull was brought and kept in the Morung, a dormitory where young, unmarried men were taught life skills.

‘Last of the Tattooed Head Hunters’ is not Zao’s maiden venture. She has produced and directed several films on the anthropological aspects of the different tribes of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The most notable among them are ‘Defenders’, a fictional 100-minute period film based on Naga history which was made in 2009, and ‘Sopfunuo’, a fictional film on polygamy practices among the Nagas.

Read the Entire Article on The Deccan Herald

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Aneesha Baig in the North East

Aneesha Baig of NDTV's Will Travel for Food has done a couple of segments on the food of the North East.

Join foodaholic Aneesha as she discovers the traditional authentic Assamese cuisine in the hustling and bustling, capital city, Guwahati.

View the video at: NDTV

Soak in the old world charms of Shillong with Aneesha, as she digs into 'jadoh' and 'ktungrymbai' - the local Shillong cuisine, and samples unique twists to pork, fish and chicken recipes.

View the video at: NDTV and on NDTV

Also take a look at Rocky & Mayur's (of Highway on My Plate) segment on food - Xmas in Shillong

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bhogali Bihu Fish Market at Uzaan Bazaar

An Assamese friend of mine, invited me to the fish market on Saturday (January 14th) morning. She said it would be special as the market was specifically expanded for Bhogali Bihu (Makar Sankranti - the sun transitions from Saggitarius to Capricorn. The celebration heralds the lengthening of days, arrival of spring and is also one of the two annual harvests )

Normally the Uzaan Bazaar fish market is a place where medium sized traders buy fish from the fishermen or the large traders. If you want to buy fish here on a regular basis you need to get here really early in the morning like 4:30am. And you just buy your fish, rarely will you be able to get it cut and cleaned here itself. Today, each stall had 1 or 2 people on hand to descale, clean and cut the fish.

On Bhogali Bihu, a lot of smaller fishermen also set up stalls here. When we arrived the stalls stretched out for almost a kilometer and 6 rows deep on the sandy riverbanks of the Brahmaputra. If you plan to buy fish here, then do note that you will have to buy the whole fish and not just a piece. Fish size here, ranges from 2-20kgs each. Not like Mangalore, where you get 5-6 bangdas in a kilo of fish.So fish markets in Guwhati allow you to buy just a couple of pieces from whichever part of the fish is available.

The tail isn't preferred here, but the head is prized by a lot of families.The primary varieties of fish available here are the ari (fresh water cat fish), bhorali and chital (a flat fish). Rohu is sometimes available, but its very bony.

Most fish in Guwahati comes from outside Guwahati. But even though they have higher transport costs, local varieties of the fish are more expensive as people prefer the taste of the local varietes of the same fishes.

Given that it was Bhogali Bihu, prices of food items in the city skyrocketed. Chicken which is normally around 120/kg was selling for 400/kg. The fish was selling from 550/kg onwards. Prices of vegetables and milk products also hit the roof. I was told that in the economically weaker sections of the society, they buy lottery coupons for various proteins. The prizes for each of these lotteries are things like a dozen eggs or half a kilo of fish, chicken, mutton. So only the winners of the lotteries get protein on their plates during this festival.

I did visit the market with my friends, but given that I was forewarned about the prices of fish, I left my wallet behind and only carried my camera.

The market:

The Fish:

Weighing / Buying/Cleaning Fish:

Some people proudly carry the fish home whole, so everyone can admire the size of their catch.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Day 9 - Cheerapunjee - Shillong

The Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort is built on the mountains facing the Bangladeshi plains of Sylhet. So while Shillong, Kaziranga and Nagaland were freezing, the temperatures at Cheerapunjee were extremely pleasant. The warm air from the plains rises up the mountain and the cool air flows down to the plains resulting in lovely weather during the winter months. However, the true beauty of Meghalaya is experienced during the monsoons when the heavens pour down and waterfalls peek out from around every curve of the mountainous roads.

We had set our alarm for 5:30am, so we could visit one of the living root bridges in the morning. Brajesh's alarm was set for 15 minutes before mine (we take it in turns to wake up earlier in the mornings when traveling with only one washroom). However, even when he was all dressed and ready for breakfast, I still hadn't woken up and he woke me up thinking I had forgotten to set my alarm. He went outside into the dining room while I headed to brush my teeth and found no-one in the dining room or kitchen, even though we had requested 6am breakfast, so he headed out for a walk in the garden.

About 10 minutes later, my alarm began to ring. It was only then that we figured out that his phone (on which he set his alarm) had latched on to the Bangladesh signal and had automatically updated time to Bangladesh, which is half an hour ahead. Poor guy! This trip has been physically exhausting and 30 minutes of sleep does make a huge difference to our day.

Mr Dennis Rayen who runs the Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort is the man responsible for popularising the living root bridges of Meghalaya. The Indian Rubber Tree - Ficus Elastica - is native to Meghalaya. Its roots are guided (through hollow bamboo tubes) over 20-25 years to form living bridges. These bridges can then be used for upto 500 years. These bridges are completely natural, extremely strong and can withstand the constant rainfall they are subjected to in the wettest place on earth.

There are quite a few living root bridges around the Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort and keeping to his theme of employment generation, Mr Rayen has a team of young local boys who can guide you to any of them. Mr Rayen chatted with us about our fitness levels and pre-existing medical conditions and given my bad knee, he advised us to visit the Umkar bridge.

The Umkar bridge is slightly damaged and hence partly under reconstruction and entails a 1.5 hour trek over relatively flat surface. The other root bridge had a descent of 1400feet and the double decker living root bridge has a descent of 2400feet. But they both offer an opportunity to bathe in mountain streams before ascending again.

Mr Rayen sent Alan to accompany us and we eagerly set out to view one of the natural wonders of the world. When we visited, 80% of the road was in its natural state but 20% of the road was being developed under NREGA (National Rural Employment Generation Scheme)

The path was densely wooded in various shades of dark green, only interrupted by multi colored giant spiders whose webs seemed to be holding trees together.

It was quite an experience to actually walk on a living root bridge, technology for which was developed centuries before concrete was even invented. These bridges have helped villagers across the ages, cross deep ravines, swollen rivers and walk across waterfalls. They must also be the earliest examples of generations building long-lasting infratstructure for future generations.

After trekking back to our car, we drove to a couple of scenic view points around the area under Alan's guidance before heading back to Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort for lunch. Today too we tried some Khasi specialities including a powerful dry fish chutney and dhal with local green leafy vegetables.

The menu at Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort is quite varied and all they ask is that you order meals an hour in advance to allow them enough time to prepare everything fresh.

Much as we would have loved to indulge in a post-lunch siesta, it was now time to head back to Shillong with fingers crossed hoping to avoid the worst of the traffic. But before that, on a friends suggestion, we stopped for a short break at the Ramakrishna mission in Cheerapunjee. The mission runs a wonderful school here and they have curated an educative museum centered around the local culture and myths. Photography however wasn't allowed inside the museum.

Once we reached Shillong, we realised we had made good time and stoped to peek inside the All Saints Cathedral with its charming stained glass interiors. The church was originally erected in 1876 and still has a large congregation.

Right next door to the Church, was a small hall advertising a North East India Travel & Tourism fair. Since time was on our side and we are always eager to discover more places to visit in the region, we popped in for a look see. Our Khasi guide from yesterday, Ishuk was there manning an Indian tourism stall as their North East representative. We did not learn much more, but had our pictures taken by quite a few stall owners. We were initially puzzled by this and then figured that we were the only "tourists" and non-travel & tourism operators to have visited the exhibition. "We" were their ideal target audience, & unfortunately for them we were also the only 2 to turn up.

From here, we headed back to Tripura Castle for the night. This time we were given a bigger room that was exposed to the howling wind from 3 sides. The wind chill rendered the soiltary room heater useless, but requests for an additional room heater were immediately turned down as being "unreasonable" We were however handed a hot water bottle each at 11pm that night.

The service staff at the restaurant at Tripura Castle is friendly, but the room service staff is extremely curt to "non-foreign" guests. The management in their office does their best to look constantly busy and is not helpful either. Personally I would recommend the RiKynjai Resort over Tripura Castle anyday.

The prospect of being in our own bed tomorrow is so comforting, that I will hold onto that thought to get me through the chilly night.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Day 8 - Shillong - Cheerapunjee

We were quite excited today when we were told that a local Khasi guide would take us to visit a Shaman and the Khasi King of Smit. After a substantial breakfast, we set out eagerly towards Smit, accompanied by Ishuk (our Khasi guide).

However along the way, our guide informed us that today was Seng Kut Snem, the Khasi End-of-Year festival and hence the king (who incidentally is an MBBS doctor and also treats his people medically) would be busy with official activities and wouldn't be able to meet us.

We proceeded to brave traffic jams and at Thangsning we stopped to visit the Shaman. This Shaman turned out to be a herbalist, especially skilled at healing broken bones and Parkinsons disease. While we were there, one of his patients was a young man under treatment for 6 months. Regular doctors had given up on his multiple fracture and completely broken bones (broken apart, not just a fracture) He said he was in much better shape than when he originally visited this doctor.

It seems a couple of months back, German doctors came to visit him to find out how he had cured a case of Parkinsons in a patient whom they had resigned to be untreatable. The Khasi patient had come back to Smit and got himself treated by Dr. Bringstone Kharumnuid and gone back to Germany completely healed and astounding the German Doctors.

Dr Bringstone happily showed us some of the herbs that he used in treatments and I have to say, I have never seen such roots and leaves before in my life, even though my grandmother also used a lot of herbal remedies in treating all of us, when we were sick.

After visiting the doctor, we took a small detour and stopped at Laiplum view point. A steep vertical drop to the bottom where a couple of villages exist. Today was market day and these villagers were all headed to Smit to sell their produce and buy things they needed for the coming week, before market day came around again. We had vertigo just looking down from that height, but the hardy villagers just climbed up and down without even breaking into a sweat. A rope pulley system is in place for the heavier produce, which they can avail for a fee. The villagers did not want their pictures taken, but we will never forget how they climbed the almost 85degree vertical surface.

Although, the Khasi king was occupied, we did visit his palace. It is constructed from pine and other local wood, but similar in structure to the Naga chief palaces. Every bit of the palace (except the thatched covering of the roof) including the nails are made from wood. Every November, during the Nongkrem festival, the thatch on the kings palace is replaced within 24 hours while the virgins are dancing in the maidan just opposite the palace..

As we returned to Shillong, we were caught up in a festive procession and it was lovely to see the Khasi flags featuring a crowing cock and women dressed in their best jeinsengs.

We dropped our local guide back to her home and then headed towards Cheerapunjee. Although Shillong peak, Elephant Falls and the Sacred Forest were originally on our itinerary, since we had already seen them and had lost a lot of time to traffice jams, we decided to skip it and head straight to Cheerapunjee, the wettest place on earth until overtaken a few years ago by a neighbouring village.

We took a tea break at Soilyna Huts, which is currently being renovated and refurbished. Its a good clean place for washroom breaks and they also serve Khasi food. But we weren't yet hungry enough for lunch, so we headed on.

Our next stop was the wonderful view point at Duwan Sing Syem. If you are inclined you can trek down from the viewpoint, but we contented ourselves by clicking pictures from the road, right next to where the car was parked.

We finally arrived at Nohkalikai falls. The story of how the falls got their name is similar to a story from Greek mythology. Likai was a young Khasi woman very much in love with her husband and their daughter, but her husband died young. Under pressure from the rest of the village, she re-married, but the 2nd husband was jealous of Ka Likai's love for her daughter. One day, when she was away from the house, he killed the child and cooked her and left the food in the house. When Ka Likai came home she assumed her husband and daughter were at a neighbours place and since she was hungry, she went to the kitchen and served herself. The food was delicious and she enjoyed it. It was only later when she realised what she had eaten that she went mad with guilt and rage, that she flung herself from the falls, so the falls are called Noh Ka Likai (the place from where Likai leaped)
These falls are claimed to be the 4th highest in the world. They don't have the majesty of the Niagara or the power of some of the other falls that I have seen, but it is definitely poetry in motion. The viewing point, is quite a distance from the actual falls, so its difficult to truly appreciate their size and grandeur.

The dhabha next door offered us tasty and simple home style food. Rice, kaali dhal, salad, aloo mattar sabji and aloo chips for 60/- a plate. We ordered a side of fried brinjal and fried chicken. A simple meal, but very well cooked.

With this light replenishment we went to discover one of the major attractions of Meghalaya - caving! I'm mildly claustrophobic, so I was sure, I would not be entering the cave, but would duly wait at the entrance and exit to click the requisite pictures while Brajesh explored the insides. However Dipankar and Ruporabha convinced me that it wasn't too tight a squeeze, that it was electrically lit up inside and there was no danger of bats and so I started. At each point where I felt the passage was getting too tight, they would assure me that the exit was round the corner. And it was only this series of white lies that got me scrambling and crawling through Mawsmai cave. The few places, where I could stand up at full height were beautiful, but I'd rather enjoy the stalactites and stalagmites at places like the Luray caverns or Jeitta Grotto, where I can breathe easily through the entire experience.
 The Khasi monoliths on the way to Mawsmai are much more remarkable than the generic ones that we have seen around Meghalaya.The monoliths are installed in memory of someones valiant deeds, but do not record who the persoon or what the deeds were, so sadly, their history has been lost.
We also took a quick photo break at a 113 year old Presbyterian Church at Nongsawlia - the oldest in the North East. Rev Thomas Jones, the first Welsh Missionary arrived here on 22 June 1841. He established the community in 1846 and a chapel was built on this spot in 1898.
Our halt for the night was the Cheerapunjee guest house, run by Mr Ryan Davis and his wife. Mr Davis is a Tamilian married to a Khasi. He fell in love with this area when visiting his wifes family and a few years back, he decided to create a resort here, so others could appreciate the beauty. He can single handedly be credited for popularising the living root bridges to the world. He believes strongly in helping the local populace become self sufficient and giving them dignity of labour. All the staff is local. In the evening, we were entertained by a local group of youth with some excellent English, Hindi and Khasi music.

We finally managed to try some Khasi food too. Khasi food is similar to Mangalorean food in some respects with some unusual twists. More about that, when I write about the food.
After dinner, we turned in early, all excited about finally visiting the Living Root Bridges in the morning.

Day 7 - Kaziranga to Shillong

Managed to get more than 5 hours sleep for a change. On a normal basis, I can operate on 5-6 hours of sleep. But the last few days have been physically exhausting too.

Today was supposed to be an easy drive on relatively good roads (compared to the last 3 days), so we were hoping to reach Shillong early enough to explore the hotel we were staying at instead of just burying our noses in our laptops on arrival as we have been doing since we began this trip.

We left Iora at Kaziranga by 8am and as we were leaving we were given a lovely send off by 2 rhinos and a couple of bison who came almost to the highway to bid us goodbye.

We stopped for tea at Dhabha Highway at Rah. Relatively clean washrooms. (Yesterday at Kareng Dhabha, the washroom was a series of broad leaves hastily thrown together in a reactangular shape with gaping holes all around that tried to enclose 2 bricks on either side of a hole in the floor). The dhabha was a popular stopping point for vehicles on this route until the new highway came in, which now runs about 15-20 feet above the dhabha. The enterprising Punjabi owners have added a staircase for customers to climb up and down while also affixing a couple of notices saying "Dhabha customers, please park cars on the service road and not on the highway"

The day was warm and I wasn't in the mood for tea, so I got really excited after a few kilometers, when I saw Tender coconut water (nariyal paani) for sale at Thekeragudi. There was plenty of competition, but they all insisted that it would be 20Rs a coconut and then proceeded to give us a lecture on the health benefits of coconut water!

Our next stop for lunch was 15kms away from Guwahati at Highway Citi Dhabha. We planned to bypass Guwahati completely, but I was extremely tempted to just go home and tumble into my own bed and not wake up to any more 6am alarms. In hindsight, we may have been better off if we had rested in Guwahati for half a day and then headed out to Shillong in the morning. We had basic anda bhurji, dal fry and rotis at the dhabha. We had ordered for butter rotis (rotis here are made with maida and need that extra moisture) What arrived where plain rotis. When we asked the waiter, he said that there was butter in the dhal and hence no need for any to be added to the rotis! That was a first, waiters normally try to upsell more expensive items on the menu, this guy was downselling!

The almost 200kms from Kaziranga to Guwahati was covered in 4 hours. After a 1 hour lunch break (service here is really slow) we reached Shillong (120km) within an hour and a half. But the last 13kms to enter Shillong took us 2 and a half hours. It was absolutely excrutiating to be so near and yet so far away.

Other than a short photo stop at Borapani / Umiam Lake, today was just about the drive and we had been really looking forward to reaching early and getting everything thats been pending organised, but that just wasn't to be. The pitiable point to note is that none of these traffic jams would have occurred if people just followed some basic civic sense.

Shillong is a hilly region and roads are 2 laned. However, when faced with a series of cars in line, there is always one driver who messes up everything by overtaking all the vehicles standing patiently in line and zips up on the wrong side of the road, setting a horrid precedent, thagt is quickly followed by a rush of other irritated drivers and soon they block the path of all oncoming traffic and the situation is repeated on the other side resulting in a complete gridlock.

We finally arrived at Tripura Castle in Shillong at 6:30pm. Ancestral home to the Maharajas of Tripura in Meghalaya. Some of the buildings are very old and some are newer constructions, built to resemble the old. The cutlery all comes embossed with the coat of arms of the Maharaja, but we weren't lucky enough to find him in residence.

Today was a quiet uneventful day, but tomorrow is quite packed, so stay tuned.

Day 6 - Mon, Nagaland - Sivsagar - Kaziranga

I can't say I was sorry to leave the Konyak region of Nagaland. It was a beautiful soul stirring experience, but I couldn't wait to get back to solid even grounds and hot water baths. (At 800m-2000m above sea level and 10C temperature, we only had running cold water at the guest house as the water heaters had all gone on the blink. Turning any one of them on would result in the tripping of the electricity to the whole building.)

The region and the area is beautiful, but the hardships that they face on a daily basis is sapping. I was expecting everyone in Nagaland to be dressed in colorful clothes and enjoy a relatively comfortable standard of living but the dirt & grime of reality in Konyak, was unsettling. It induced a strange kind of guilt, of us being able to take running hot water for granted with just the flick of a switch, while it meant chopping firewood, lighting a fire, carrying water from the well, setting it to boil and only then using it, for the Konyaks.

I had hoped that a tribal chief system in its purest form, would be a more effective form of governance. But drugs and alcohol seem to be more prevalent here than in the rest of India. A kilo of ganja / marijuana costs 250Rs (5$) while a kilo of pork or dog meat costs 130. A strip of opium soaked cotton costs 10Rs. So drugs are a cheap and easy way to dull the senses. At least for Konyak, the grain, meat and vegetables all come from Guwahati. Are these the same people who are demanding a seperate country or is that just political posturing? I left Nagaland without any answers and more questions than I entered with.

On our way out, we had to let the army post know that we were leaving and the Nagaland checkpoint too. We started early, so we could stop to take in a few sights at Sivsagar that is halfway through.

Sivsagar was the ancient capital of the Ahom kings who ruled over most of the North East for over 600 years, repelling Mughal and British attacks, but finally fell because they requiring British aid to beat back the Burmese incursions. Opinion is divided on where the Ahoms originally hailed from. The ASI says they came from China, while noted guide books claim it was Thailand or Burma. The best place to see remnants of their influence are the temples at Sivsagar. Today Sivsagar is famed as the cultural capital of Assam with all the plays & musical performances that happen here.

The Rang Ghar is the first Ahom Monument you will see while driving along the main road in Sivsagar. This is supposed to be Asia's first amphitheater. Ahom Kings sat on the first floor of this oval structure, whose roof resembles an upturned boat and watched animal fights and cultural performances taking places in the grounds below. Today there are 2 statues placed in the gardens below to depict the kind of perfromances that took place here.

In 1734, Queen Ambika (of Ahom king Swargadeo Siba Singha) constructed the huge tank in the center of their Ahom capital and 3 temples on its banks. The Shiv temple called Sivdol is 104ft (32m) high and the circumference is 195ft (59 m) at the base. The 8ft high cupola just below the trishul on the top is covered in gold. There are claims that this is the tallest Shiva Temple in the country.

When facing the Shiva temple, the tank (Sivsagar) falls behind the temple. It is believed to be a very Holy temple and while we were visiting, we met some ladies of mixed Bengali and Assamese origin who had travelled from Guwahati to come to this tank to offer prayers for the successful and happy marriage of one of their family members. I struck up a conversation with them, because I was very fascinated by the hand painted pots in their thali.

To the left of Sivdol is Devidol and to the right is Vishnudol. The compound also houses smaller temples to Kali, Hanuman, Shani & Ganesh. Plenty of pigeons and goats are fed on the premises, so if you are visiting as a tourist and want to see all the smaller temples too, I highly recommend that you don't leave your footwear at the main stand, but take them off just outside each temple. There are plenty of temple offerrings scattered on the floor, so you are better off wearing washable footware.

The path to the main Sivdol is lined with Sadhus and Babas peddling all manner of threads and charms. We didn't buy anything from them, even though they were quite persuasive. With our SLR's & Brajesh in shorts, we are often mistaken for the golden geese - "foreign" tourists, until Brajesh speaks to them in Hindi and assures them that we aren't going to be buying cotton thread malas for 200Rs.

Our next stop was lunch at Sky Chef. The service is abysmally slow. But the restaurant is clean, hygenic, air conditioned with clean loos and the Chinese food was quite tasty. They served my favourite American Chopsuey on this trip so far. Yes, unfortunately, most places we have eaten at on this trip, only offer Indian and Chinese options and not their local specialities.

Post lunch, we visited Talaatal Ghar, a 2 storey Ahom palace built in the mid 18th century. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and its a beautiful walk for 5Rs.

There was a special exhibition by ASI on the grounds of famous Indian monuments. We lso saw some of the before and after pictures that the ASI has taken of the restoration of all the Ahom monuments and I must say it has been a phenomenal effort. The only problem is that the buildings now look new and not a couple of centuries old.:)

Simultaneously, the ASI was also holding an essay writing competition for disadvantaged kids on the necessity to preserve historic monuments. A wonderful effort, the kids were very excited and I hope these initiatives help to make a difference.

After stepping back 400 years, we were ready to come back into the present. We headed to Iora in Kaziranga to break journey before heading to Shillong in Meghalaya. It was such a pleasure to be able to have a hot water bath to wash away all the dust of the last 3 days and soothe our sore bodies. Our North East Chilli Vodka cocktail beckoned and it was with great effort that we stopped at one each, else no pictures would ever have gotten uploaded or blogs written.
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